A Story of a Coat

When this coat makes its appearance at Tucson Fashion Week, it will bring an unusual fashion story full circle. By Gillian Drummond. Cover photo courtesy of Project Runway/myLifetime.

Photo by Gillian Drummond

Photo by Gillian Drummond

It started with an unusual challenge on Season Five of Project Runway. The fashion designer contestants had to make an outfit out of the spare parts of a Saturn hybrid car. They were let loose in some Saturns, given four minutes to collect parts, and a day to complete their outfits.

Contestant Korto Momolu realized pretty quickly that the champagne-colored seatbelts would give her something stand-out, if a little demanding, to work with. She set about not only pulling all the seatbelts she could, but bartering with the other designers for theirs.

Photo courtesy of Korto Momolu

Then came the construction of the piece. She would weave the belts together and sew the edges for the body of a coat, breaking a commercial sewing machine in the process and busting up her hands badly. The sleeves were seatbelt lengths set horizontally, the ends sewn together.

The seatbelts were not just thick, they were each about 3/4 of a yard long. Added to that, they are made up of strong nylon, so they can be durable and waterproof. Cut the material and you get a very prickly edge, like lots of ends of a fishing line. Korto (pronounced "cut-toe") had to make sure the edges were sewn up so the garment didn't actually hurt. Nevertheless, the model got poked, says Korto. "I had to put tissue under her armpits."

The weight of the coat was 35 pounds. The impact the design had was even bigger. The champagne color of the belts made them shimmer under the Project Runway lights. Guest judge Rachel Zoe said she wanted to buy it. Sitting watching the show in her Tucson home, model and radio personality Camerone Parker said the same thing: "I gotta have that coat." Meantime Korto, not wanting her hard work to end up in anyone else's hands, had lined up some friends to bid for it as well when the coat was auctioned on Project Runway's website.. "That piece really showed who I was, how I could take [and work with] something that's so simple like a seatbelt," explains Korto, who has deep affection for the piece.

The coat fetched $1000 at the auction. The winner? Camerone Parker.

Photo by Gillian Drummond

And that should have been that. Except Camerone, a fan of the series since the beginning, couldn't forget that episode, and Korto couldn't forget the coat. "I was looking for it for some years. I figured whomever had it would find me," says Korto. Camerone did, during El Paseo Fashion Week 2013 in Palm Desert. Korto was a participating designer and Camerone made up her mind to go, and to wear the coat.

Photo by???

Camerone knew it would spark interest. The now infamous seatbelt coat has been deemed one of Project Runway's top five iconic pieces, she says: "People know this coat even if they're not regular watchers of the show." Still, even Camerone was surprised at El Paseo Fashion Week. "I had no idea the response I was going to get. It started the minute I got out the car," she says.

And it ended with Camerone meeting Korto, and the fashion show paparazzi going wild. "She really wore it. She was a show stopper," says Korto, who signed the inside of the coat with a Sharpie. "Thanks so much for letting me see my love again," she wrote, and she and Camerone remained in touch.

Korto didn't win that round of Project Runway, although she went on to be Season Five's first runner-up. And since the show, her brand has taken off. A native of Liberia, she moved to Canada in 1990 following the previous year's Liberia coup. She studied in Ottowa and at New York City's Parsons School of Design. She now lives in Arkansas with her husband, who left the military to open a barber shop.

Photo by???

After some high-profile exposure for her brand, including a line in Dillard's, Korto has repositioned herself and her designs. She admits a lot of it has to do with the fact that she is a new mother, also that she is almost 40. Right now she is concentrating on her online retail store and a new 2015 collection that, she says, "starts from scratch."

"I felt like I was selling myself out," Korto says of doing the department store chains. Her new collection is called Rebirth and uses golds, bronzes, beiges and pops of orange. "It's soft and soothing,  a fresh start, like a new baby," she says.

Photo by???

Visitors to Tucson Fashion Week will see the new collection as Korto and Camerone reunite at the Project Runway Showcase at the Fox Theatre.  Korto's work and  the work of fellow Runway designers Bert Keeter, Daniel Esquivel, Mila Hermanovski and Peach Carr will be showcased. Hosting the show will be Camerone Parker wearing - you guessed it - that coat.

Wearing it isn't easy. The coat weighs 35 pounds. Camerone wears just a silk shift under the coat and never takes the coat off. It's also unlined, still raw just as Korto created it. Camerone attached a large strip of bandage to the inside of the neck so it wouldn't rub.

But the garment has a following all of its own. Every time Camerone tweets a photo of her in the coat there is mass retweeting.

"It's like I'm following this coat," laughs Korto of meeting up with her creation again in Tucson. Camerone may have to watch out. Says Korto: "I might steal it from her when she's not looking."

But actually she needn't worry. Camerone says the coat and Korto are already conjoined. "I made a promise to Korto that if something happened to me, the coat will go back to her."

* See Camerone, Korto and other Project Runway designers at the Project Runway Showcase, October 18th at Fox Tucson Theatre. Tickets and more info here.  

* Find more of Korto's work at kortomomolu.com

 

 

Building by numbers

It was born out of frustration when the owners were remodeling their home. Now Modern House Numbers  has orders coming in from all over the world.

Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers

Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers

When Brandy and Rick McLain began remodeling their 1950 house in Tucson, it wasn't their intention to spin a business off from it. But when it came time to attach house numbers to the outside, they couldn't find anything to satisfy their modern and mid-century tastes. So they created their own.

Numbers in Palm Springs. Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers.

Numbers in Palm Springs. Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers

Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers

Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers

After a few experiments on thin sheets of aluminum, they settled on a thicker sheet and took their design to a firm with a waterjet cutter that could slice through it. Some time later, after numerous comments from friends and visitors, and a few orders from their friends, the couple realized they might be onto something.

Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers

Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers

Modern House Numbers is a business that grew out of design frustration. Home-based for years and originally Brandy and Rick's labor of love on evenings and weekends, it has grown so popular that Brandy quit her job for a Tucson planning company. They are about to hire a second full-time employee. The company now operates out of a midtown Tucson office and ships up to a hundred items a week, with orders coming in from all over the world. Apart from the USA, Canada is a significant market for them, and orders also come from Japan, Australia and Europe.

The house numbers come in a package that includes waterjet cut recycled aluminum numbers, peel-and-stick vinyl mailbox numbers and curb stencils, all in the same font. Prices start at $21 for packages and $1.50 for vinyl numbers. They also sell customized plaques (these cost around $150) and hotel room numbers to boutique hotel clients.

Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers

Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers

Designs, based on  Helvetica and Ultra fonts, carry names like Palm Springs, SoCal and SoHo. Colors include brushed aluminum and powder-coated white and black. Red and antique bronze finishes are coming soon. The website has been set up so that clients can preview their order before they buy.

Brandy McClain. Courtesy of Brandy McClain

Brandy McLain. Courtesy of the McLains.

Brandy has a bachelor's degree in architecture and a masters in urban planning, while Rick, an architect, is a partner in the Tucson firm Repp + McLain Design and Construction. Although he leaves much of the running of Modern House Numbers to Brandy, he is still hands-on after hours and on the weekends. Both of them try to talk on the phone with every customer. Brandy checks and hand-wraps every order that goes out. "Quality control is still our top priority," she says.

The daughter of ranchers, Brandy grew up in northern Arizona learning sewing from her mother and welding from her father. "My brother and I spent our childhoods outside," she says. When she decided to pursue architecture and not agriculture at college, her parents were more than a little surprised, she says.

Rick Mc Clain. Courtesy of the McClains.

Rick McLain. Courtesy of the McClains.

Rick, originally from Boston, moved to Tucson in 1995. He met Brandy at the University of Arizona, and their design tastes seemed as compatible as their personalities. Both share a bent for modern and mid-century lines.  The couple now rents out their first home, and have since renovated a 1960s ranch house in midtown Tucson. They have kept the original adobe exterior the same, and left exposed adobe walls in some rooms inside. Also inside are the original wooden beams on the ceilings.

Photo courtesy of repp mcclain design + construction

Photo courtesy of repp mcclain design + construction

But much has been ripped out and renovated. The kitchen cabinets are a mix of IKEA bases and custom. A deep kitchen island features raw steel. Throughout the house there is a concrete floor overlay. The simple lines, the hints of Atomic Age style and the pops of color show a love for the new and an appreciation of the mid-mod.

Photo courtesy of repp mcclain design + construction

Photo courtesy of repp mcclain design + construction

Brandy believes that, like her and Rick, Modern House Numbers' customers are looking for something out of the ordinary when it comes to their home decor. "I would say the majority of our clients have either built their homes from the ground up or have remodeled. They're looking for something a little bit more than the standard [things] you get at Home Depot."

Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers

Photo courtesy of Modern House Numbers

Next for Modern House Numbers is its own home. Brandy currently works out of Repp + McLain's office. Soon she hopes to buy and renovate a separate office building. "This is not where I expected myself to be," she says of her move from architecture and planning into home decor and e-commerce. "But I always wanted my own business. I'm excited to get up every day."

* Find Modern House Numbers online at www.modernhousenumbers.com

Reality bites

When a new reality TV home show hits screens this month, two designer sisters will be doing what they love: giving back. By Gillian Drummond.  doing what we love.We believe in giving back to the community that gives to you.

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Carla Turco, left, and Florencia Turco DeRoussel, right, are in demand by TV producers. Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli.

When sisters Carla Turco and Florencia Turco De Roussel hit TV show screens this month, they like to think the show will be more than just another piece of reality television.

The pair will appear as part of the crew of designers in Fix It and Finish It, a show that follows the fixing up of various homes and yards. Florencia, an interior designer and owner of the firm Within Interior Design Studio, is not a big fan of reality TV remodels. But this one, she says, is different.

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Carla, far left, and Florencia, second from left, on the set of Fix It and Finish It. Photo courtesy of Florencia Turco DeRoussel

"The other shows don't show the process. This is a one-day remodel and [viewers] are watching us sweat and curse and throw things around. Plus, this is doing small bits of the house, things that are manageable." The crew of 10 to 30 people is largely made up of local designers and contractors, and the designers all mucked in, says Florencia.

When producers approached them to take part in the show, Florencia was drawn to it for another reason. "It gives back. That's what I've always wanted to do with my company. I've wanted to have a non-profit piece to my company. What we're doing is making people's dreams come true," she says.

Giving back is one of the mantras at 88 Cushing, the shared work space Carla and Florencia have created in Tucson's Old Barrio district. The others are accessible design, and doing what they love. And it seems the world - and TV producers, in particular - are taking notice.

The sisters got their first taste of TV remodeling shows earlier this year when they took part in an episode of the Food Network's Food Court Wars, a face-off between budding restaurant entrepreneurs. Carla and Florencia were asked to design the winning food court space in a Sierra Vista mall.

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Carla on the set of Food Court Wars in Sierra Visa, Arizona. Photo by Nontextual Matters

They appear in six episodes of Fix It and Finish It, three of which will air next week (starting September 8 on  KOLD News 13). The producers filmed four episodes in Tucson and from here Carla and Florencia followed the crew to Montgomery, Alabama for two more.

Carla runs web and graphic design firm Nontextual Matters in Tucson. But with a degree in architecture and a hand in many of her sister's design decisions, she felt more than comfortable stepping into interior designer shoes for the shows. An added bonus? The presenter of Fix It and Finish It is Antonia Sabato Jr, an actor in General Hospital and The Bold and the Beautiful and one of Carla's childhood crushes. The three bonded on the shows and remain friends.

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A selfie with Carla's teen crush, Antonio Sabato Jr. Photo courtesy of Carla Turco

Although a decade divides the sisters (Carla is 44, Florencia 35), these last twelve years have seen them grow closer than ever. They work together, work out together, help each other with their respective businesses, and socialize together.

They arrived in Tucson in 2002, both graduates of Louisiana State University. Carla, newly divorced, was looking for a change. Florencia's then-boyfriend and now husband, James DeRoussel, had moved here. So Florencia and Carla decided to give it a go. Their first thought? The city was quiet compared to New Orleans. "My first year I hated it. I was still in my 20s and used to partying and having something to do all the time," says Florencia.

Despite their reservations, they found their lives flourishing here. It helped that there is a strong Hispanic community in Tucson. As Argentinians in New Orleans (they moved to the USA when Carla was 15 and Florencia was 5), they never fit in, they say. "I still miss the culture and the people but that lessened a little when I moved to Tucson because I was better accepted as an Argentinian," says Carla.

In 2005 came Hurricane Katrina and the mass exodus from New Orleans. After two hellish weeks of not being able to contact their family there, Florencia and Carla persuaded their parents, their brother and his family to move to Tucson. At the same time, the sisters witnessed Tucsonans coming together and making charitable contributions to their old home.

"That's when it clicked for us. We saw how people were helping our personal friends and family," says Carla. It was time for them to give back to their newly adopted home town. They taught classes in self-defense and empowerment to women and girls in Tucson. And they got involved in the likes of Safos Dance Theatre, Arizona Public Media, productions of The Vagina Monologues in Tucson, and fundraisers for the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.

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88 Cushing, the shared work space the sisters have created in Tucson. Photo by Gillian Drummond

At the same time, they were creating their own shared work space, 88 Cushing, in an historic building on Cushing Street in Tucson's downtown. Carla's and Florencia's design firms are the anchors of the space, and over the years they have also leased to other designers. Currently they share with Tucson Expediting & Development and Transact Commercial Furnishings. The open-plan office with outside courtyard space -  originally a Chinese market at the turn of the 20th century - is regularly used for parties and business get-togethers. 

Carla Turco. Photo by Addie Mannan

Carla Turco. Photo by Addie Mannan

Charity featured heavily in the sisters' upbringing; growing up, they and their brother were taught to help others, and they witnessed their family sending money back to relatives in Argentina. Today, they may not always have money to donate to charity, but they have time. Says Carla: "Our time is precious, so giving our time is worth far more than giving $5 here or here."

Television is not new for Carla. She spends what spare time she has acting, and has appeared in several television commercials. Credits include the Fox reality TV show When Women Ruled the World, regional and television ad campaigns, small films, and voiceover work in Spanish. This Fall she will appear alongside friend and photographer Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli in the new series of Ex-Wives of Rock. Among the cast is Athena Kottak, ex-wife of Scorpions drummer James Kottak and sister of Tommy Lee. Athena and James are both clients of Carla's.

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From left to right: Carla Turco, Athena Kottak and photographer Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli on the set of Ex Wives of Rock, returning to TV this Fall. Photo courtesy of Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli

Carla is the go-getter of the two, according to Florencia. "Carla's [attitude] is so brave and 'let's do this'. I'm more 'Let me see now...'."  Carla doesn't rule out a move to a bigger city - particularly Los Angeles - to develop her acting career.  But she is all about keeping things real - particularly in the sometimes unreal genre of 'reality TV'. "With reality TV, once you fake it it comes through. It's not going to come out right. When you're real and you're showing your emotions,  people like it," she says.

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Florencia Turco DeRoussel. Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli

Likewise, Florencia is building a reputation as an interior designer who keeps her feet on the ground. She's a fan of Target, and known for helping clients on small budgets. Her clients range from residential to commercial, and have included Hush salon and spa and Habitat for Humanity Tucson.

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Habitat for Humanity's Tucson headquarters, designed by Within Studio. Photo by Dan Francis.

Florencia discovered interior design while studying pre-med in college, in preparation for medical school. "I had to take an elective. I'd never even heard the words 'interior designer' before. But it just clicked." She switched majors and now, she says, satisfies her inner science nerd with the problem-solving and math that come from designing spaces. As well as the Tucson studio, Florencia's company has an office in Montgomery, Alabama headed up by colleague Natalie Toy.

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Hush Salon and Day Spa, designed by Within Studio. Photo by Christopher Bowden Photography

The sisters' brother never did settle in Tucson, instead returning to New Orleans. But both their father and mother pursued careers similar to what they had in New Orleans. Father Carlos runs Belle Epoque Upholstery, and mother Elena is a retired neuroscientist who worked in research at the University of Arizona.  Each Sunday evening they have a family dinner with their parents.

They talk with gratitude about Tucson and its inhabitants, not only for giving their parents a new start, but for allowing them to feel settled. "I feel accepted here," says Florencia. "I feel understood."

* Fix It and Finish It will air on KOLD News 13 in Tucson on September 8, 9 and 10. More info here. Find Non-Textual Matters and Within Interior Design Studio at 88 Cushing Street, Tucson.

We all scream

The owners of Cashew Cow, Tucson's first cashew ice cream parlor, hope everyone -  not just vegans - go nuts for their dairy-free product. By Gillian Drummond and Joan Calcagno. Cover photo by Danni Valdez/Shutter2ThinkPhotography.

Photo by Danni Valdez

Photo by Danni Valdez

When the temperatures are reaching 100ºC and more during Tucson's summers, those brave enough to stick around here have their choice of cooling desserts.

There's ice cream - a food category enlivened lately with the opening of Hub and its offbeat home-made flavors. There's gelato (thank you Frost, Allegro and more). There's the Mexican delicacy of raspado - shaved ice with flavored syrups. And there's the home-grown chain of Eegee's restaurants, whose frozen fruit drinks are a local summer staple.

Photo by Danni Valdez

Photo by Danni Valdez

This summer, another frozen dessert is entering the fray. Cashew Cow, a dessert parlor opening in historic Broadway Village, will sell ice cream made of cashews. And while cashew-based ice cream has been a sweet treat for vegans for some time, the two partners behind this new venture want to draw in more than the non-dairy crowd.

One of their slogans will be 'We all scream'. Make that vegans, non-vegans, those concerned with their cholesterol, and those who just like eating ice cream, however it's made.

Jennifer Newman is one of the latter. But this gourmand has high standards. She holds up brand leader Häagen-Dazs as her favorite ice cream. So when Jennifer and her picky palate were drawn in to the cashew ice cream her friend Jeremy Shockley was experimenting with, she knew he was onto something.

Jeremy had tried almond and coconut versions of ice cream. "They were OK but they never matched the traditional indulgence," he says. A visit to Pure Food and Wine, a raw food restaurant in Manhattan, changed everything. "They make a fresh young Thai coconut meat cashew coconut oil ice cream. It's very indulgent. I thought 'Even my nephew would eat that. I could get into this'." A look at their recipe - published online - proved it was a laborious dish. "You're hand cracking coconuts on a daily basis," he says.

He thought non-dairy ice creams that were being marketed as health food products or to niche consumer markets were "missing the point" - the point being that ice cream is an indulgence. Then, on a dog walk one day and daydreaming of his own future cash cow, he came up with the name Cashew Cow.

Photo by Danni Valdez

Jeremy, a recording engineer and technical supervisor whose work had taken him to Los Angeles and Connecticut, threw himself into two and a half years of intense study of dairy science and chemistry. Jennifer, meanwhile, with a background in restaurants and a Masters in nutrition, was the ideal business partner.

An obscure cultural reference brought them together at a Tucson dog park. She was wearing a T-shirt from the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade - something Jeremy recognized from his time back east - and the two got talking. Both had lived in Tucson (Jeremy during high school, Jennifer until she was 11), both had spent time in New York City, and both had returned to what they consider their home town. Added to that, they had mutual Tucson friends.

Photo by Danni Valdez

Photo by Danni Valdez

With Jeremy's love of branding and advertising (he formerly did branding and marketing for Maya Tea Company), and Jennifer's in nutrition (from cheese department manager in New York, to nutrition counseling and non-profit work), they say they balance each other out. And each of them was at a similar point in their lives and careers, a now-or-never moment. Says Jennifer: 'The random jobs I had in New York, some of them never made sense to me. It was always like 'I need to find the career'. This is something I'd been looking for for a long time."

The Cashew Cow product uses whole cashews, a low glycemic mineral-rich sweetener (he won't say which), and a touch of coconut. There are no flavor syrups; flavoring comes naturally, from whole food ingredients. Meanwhile, the cashews bring vitamins, minerals, fiber and heart-friendly monounsaturated fat.

Photo by Danni Valdez

Photo courtesy of Cashew Cow

Photo by Jeremy Shockley

Photo courtesy of Cashew Cow

The pair have been testing their product at farmers' markets and events around Tucson, quietly wowing exactly the demographic they want - that is, everyone. "I want vegetarians standing shoulder to shoulder with the guy with barbecue sauce on his shirt," says Jeremy. Adds Jennifer: "Everyone wants ice cream." And if that ice cream happens to serve beneficial fats by way of whole cashew nuts, all the better.

"We wanted to make a nutritionally dense food rather than a reduced indulgence product," says Jeremy. "It’s ice cream. Ice cream is frozen emotion.  You come to it because you want to celebrate something or to feel good. So you have to formulate based on indulgence.

"Our dream customer is someone who knows nothing about nutrition but they can come in and grab our product and whether they know it or not they are eating healthy. They’re getting whole-food nutrition and they have no idea.” His aim for his product is that it's delicious, and fun, while at the same time doing customers some good.

The space they have taken up in the burgeoning Broadway Village was designed by Repp + McClain. This will be the architecture and construction company's fifth project here; they have outfitted Session Yoga yoga studio, Italian restaurant Falora, the new bar, Sidecar, and Sugar Sweet Bakery, which is next door to Cashew Cow.

At less than 1000 sq ft, the space  brought challenges. Repp + McClain partners Rick McLain and Page Repp say it was important to accommodate everyone, from the grab-and-go customers, to those who want to sit, to kids hanging out at the cashew-shaped kiddie table.

Photo by Danni Valdez

The parlor's cone-shaped stools and tables. Photo by Danni Valdez

Photo by Danni Valdez

Photo by Danni Valdez

Jennifer and Jeremy have had fun with the decor and the branding. There are cone-shaped bar stools and side tables, the nut-shaped kids' table and hanging pendant lights above the counter that change color via remote control. The wooden-topped benches along one wall are modular; they can be taken off the wall and arranged into different seating configurations. The walls have strips of steel so they can attach art with magnets and change it up frequently. Jeremy credits friend and furniture maker/contractor Matthew Williams of Sticks & Stones with the design and build of the furniture.

They're calling their mascot - which appears on their logo as a cow with a cashew-shaped body - Johnny Cashew Cow. The flavors - and there will only be six to start with - include names like Sacred Cacao Chocolate, Bean Me Up Coffee and Cream of the Cropsicle (orange and vanilla). At around $4 a scoop, they are choosing a price point similar to the likes of Hub.

Their years of getting the business off the ground have included a lot of hurdles and some steep learning curves. Jennifer says she had to Google 'business plan' at the beginning, only to find that heading up the business side of of the project "came naturally". Jeremy has been his own personal chemist, creating the product and its flavored varieties from scratch. Vanilla was his toughest. The synthetic version, vanillin, is a single molecule, whereas vanilla beans have several hundred flavor compounds.

Photo by Danni Valdez

Photo by Danni Valdez

There have been problems with the concrete floor, with plumbing and with the cooler. There have also been two dog deaths, with each of them having to put down their dog months apart from one another. Jeremy has slept in guest rooms and on sofas, and in seven different houses in three years. But they believe in their product, and the spin-off products they say are in the pipeline. Friends and family members - who make up the private investors backing the business - believe in it too.

And now, says Jeremy, who's hoping to open the doors within the next few weeks, it's time to have fun.

* Cashew Cow, located just south of Broadway Boulevard on S. Eastbourne Avenue, is due to open at the end of July. You can keep tabs on progress on their Facebook page and their website.

Sleeping beauties

Beds are turning into pods, cubes and hi-tech getaways. Forget counting sheep or Ambien: nodding off just took a different turn altogether. By Gillian Drummond

Tucson's first sleeping pod. Photo by Liam Frederick Photography

The sleeping 'cube' developed especially for Susan Chandler. Photo by Liam Frederick Photography

Like so many brilliant ideas, it started on a napkin. Susan Chandler, a long-time difficult sleeper, sketched her idea for a sleeping area with a difference. Susan is sensitive to light and always sleeps with a mask on. She based her sketch on two things: a step-up bed design she had once seen in an historic house; and a magazine photo of a home in Costa Rica with an enclosed sleeping area.

Inside the Chandler's home. Photo by Liam Frederick Photography

Inside the Chandlers' home. Photo by Liam Frederick Photography

Tucson architects and designers Bil Taylor and Darci Hazelbaker came up with the goods: compact three-walled sleeping quarters with room - just - for a bed and built-in night stands. There are two doors and the fourth 'wall' is a remote-controlled roman shade, which is lowered at night and whenever Susan wants to take a nap.

The added genius of this room-within-a-room room is the fact that it means Susan and her husband Appy can use the rest of the master bedroom space - an addition to their 1940 midtown Tucson home - for entertaining. They pull down the shade of the sleeping cube and guests pull up seats at a long mesquite table for drinks, eats and a movie, spilling out onto the patio outside.

Enclosed sleeping areas are nothing new, of course. Four-poster beds, with their columns, drapes and 'ceilings', date back 600 years or more. But, thanks to new technology and a general lack of sleep, now they come with 21st century twists.

The HiCan, made in Italy by Hi-Interiors, takes the idea of a four-poster or canopy bed and turns it into a movie theater and games console. With the tap of a button, users can watch a film, listen to music, play on an XBox, talk to the hotel reception or check email. Blinds enclose the bed (nickname: the 'i-Bed'), which is made of wood, lacquered MDF and leather. The frame comes in a choice of eight colors.

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The HiCan bed, made in Italy. Photo courtesy of Hi-Interiors

The HiCan was designed by Edoardo Carlino from creative studio Think Future Design and so far has sold in the USA, Canada, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the UK. "It originates from an R&D project we financed at the University of Calabria with the aim of exploring the idea of integrating the best Italian design with state-of-the-art technology. We focused at the beginning on the bedroom to reinvent this experience," says Ivan Tallarico, head of the HiCan team.

The response? "So far it's enthusiastic. I think our clients like the idea of retiring and resting inside a cocoon after a very stressful day," he says. In the USA,  Avant Gallery in Miami carries the HiCan, but Ivan says the company's target market is individuals - specifically a "very successful and rich" businessman.

Lest you are not one of the rich, a stay at Qbic Hotels may be more attainable. QBIC offers affordable and chic rooms at its two locations in Amsterdam and London (prices from £69 or $116). There's a similar cocoonish feel to them, thanks to the cube-like framing that's part of the bed. (The rooms are even called a 'cubi'.) The  bed - with aluminum frame  - comes with a 32-inch Skype-ready 'smart' TV, mood lighting and reading lights.

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The bed in a 'cubi' at Qbic London. Photo courtesy of Qbic Hotels

Image courtesy of Qbic Hotels.

Photot courtesy of Qbic Hotels.

Image courtesy of Qbic Hotels.

Photo courtesy of Qbic Hotels.

The Cubi is the IKEA of the hotel world. The bed structure comes as a flat-pack, takes a day to install, and thus speeds up hotel development, says Qbic's Paul Janmaat. The whole idea was triggered by the increasing vacancies in office buildings, he says. "The major advantage is the building speed - it takes only six months to create a hotel - and a reduction in investment cost."

The Once Upon a Dream bed, made in France, is getting a lot of attention from stylistas. It was originally designed to cure jet lag, for guests of the Hotel du Marc at Rheims. Hotel du Marc is part of the House of Veuve Clicquot, a private hotel offered to Veuve Clicquot friends, members and VIP guests. And while there's little chance of some of us lesser mortals visiting, we can always dream. Which is exactly what its creator, French designer Mathieu Lehanneur, is hoping for.

Describing the bed as somewhere between "the Sand Man and home cinema", its makers say it was designed using tried and tested data gathered in studies for treating people with chronic insomnia. Once Upon a Dream operates in four stages. First there is automatic curtain closure. Then the temperature falls to between 2C and 19C. The user then brushes up against a hanging plant - reminiscent of the briar that protects Sleeping Beauty - which activates an automatic light dimmer gradually over the next 15 minutes. At the same time, l0w-volume white noise isolates the sleeper from external sounds.

"It goes beyond a bed," says Mathieu. "Veuve Clicquot aimed to put their customers in a dream world. The people who come and spend a night in this hotel are mainly guests and VIPs working with the brand. They usually arrive from one point of the world, spend a single night, and fly to another point. You can easily imagine the high level of jet lag distortion in their physiology."

Mathieu, a Paris-based designer whose other clients include Issey Miyake, Nike and Pullman Hotels, collaborated with a hypnologist and sleep disease specialist to better understand the human brain and how sound, light and temperature affect sleep. He describes the one-of-a-kind bed as "the ideal context to get amazing dreams without any drug'".

"Users love it," says Mathieu. "In a way, I didn’t design just the room but also the dreams in the brains of the guests."
Photo courtesy of Veuve Cliquot

The Once Upon a Dream bed, exclusive to Veuve Clicquot. Photo courtesy of Veuve Cliquot

Lack of sleep is a public health epidemic, says the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It's linked to motor vehicle crashes, industrial disasters, medical errors, and diseases like diabetes, depression, obesity and cancer. The evidence is clear that adults and children are not getting a good night's sleep. That's one of the reasons Christopher Lindholst, co-founder of MetroNaps, advocates napping during the day.  "It's tough for me when I don't," he says of his daily power naps. He has trained himself to take a 13.5 minute nap, which is all you need, says he and the research, to recharge our batteries.

Metro Naps EnergyPod

MetroNaps' EnergyPods are made of powder-coated steel and fiberglass. Photo courtesy of MetroNaps

Christopher's napping pods were launched in 2004 in New York City as part of a napping place for tired city workers to recharge. The aim was to develop these napping stations across the USA. But his company had immediate interest from businesses and took the company in a different direction, installing its space-age looking pods in offices like Google, Cisco Systems, fitness centers, and at the baseball stadium of Phoenix's Arizona Diamondbacks.

"It's for the players, to help them mitigate fatigue. They have busy travel schedules and changing time zones. And there's good research on the importance of short term rest on an athlete's performance," says Christopher of the Diamondbacks' pods, which can cost $8000 to $12000 each.

Taking naps during the day still has a stigma attached to it, admits Christopher. But that is changing, he says. "When we started 10 years ago people thought we were crazy to condone sleeping on the job. But with growing evidence and awareness of the importance of sleep and, frankly, growing incidences of work fatigue and insufficient  sleep, people are being made more aware of [its benefits] and corporate awareness is changing. We're trying to convey to people there's nothing to be proud of if you only slept three hours. You might as well be drunk."

* For more details about Susan and Appy Chandler's remodel, click here.

Energy Pod

MetroNaps' Energy Pod. Photo courtesy of MetroNaps

 

Liquid grace

... is how architect-turned jewelry maker Rameen Ahmed describes her work, a lesson in geometry, precision and movement.

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A sample of Rameen's jewelry from her Mobile Series, $2,600. Photo courtesy of Rameen Ahmed Designs

As a child, Rameen Ahmed would walk past the National Assembly Building in Dhaka in her native Bangladesh. She'd stop and sit on a wall and stare. She witnessed the government building's construction, and by the time she was in high school this Louis Kahn-designed structure was complete.

Rameen Ahmed

Rameen Ahmed wearing her Raw Note brooch, $560. Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli

Modernist in principle, and making the most of its surrounding desert and materials, Kahn's building of multiple towers with large geometric shapes appearing to be cut out of them, made a big statement and a similarly big impression. Having an internationally renowned architect such as Kahn, and one who was a modernist, put his stamp on their country like that was "a huge big deal", says Rameen. "It really made a big impact on my whole generation."

Rameen Ahmed Designs

A choker featuring a cereus cactus, $800. Photo by Gillian Drummond

Rameen made up her mind: she would be an architect. Not only that, she would leave her country to do it. Having spent time in London as a child, she had gotten a taste for cultures beyond Bangladesh. Added to that, in her homeland she felt like a square peg, especially with her family. "Nobody could quite understand me. I was always artistically weird," she says. "I wanted to get away as far as I possibly could."

Rameen Ahmed Designs

Ring, $500. Photo courtesy of Rameen Ahmed Designs

Rameen is known for her habit of turning to the back of a book first. She did the same at the US Consulate in Dhaka, where she flicked through a book about the USA and its colleges. "There are no states starting with x, y or z, so the first one I looked at was Madison, Wisconsin," she says. Soon she was on an airplane -  in-flight entertainment: the original version of Footloose - to study architecture, and later to work for a civil engineering firm in Chicago.

The midwest winters got the better of her. She visited a friend in New Mexico, then headed southwest herself, arriving in Arizona in December 1988 and settling in Tucson in 1989. Next came a graduate program at the University of Arizona and some time working with Tucson architect Corky Poster. Rameen was drawn to the culture behind architecture, particularly certain indigenous groups. One of the projects she's proud of is taking 30 traditional Native American homes belonging to the Tohono O'odham tribe, then with no water, plumbing or electricity, and modernizing them.

Rameen Ahmed Designs

Brooch, $350. Photo courtesy of Rameen Ahmed Designs

Today, Rameen's architect days are long behind her - sort of. One look at the jewelry she makes and it's clear that her days drafting and drawing buildings have left their stamp. The metal pieces she makes - earrings, bracelets, necklaces and pins - shout geometry and precision. They range from the simple to the elaborate, namely her neckpieces. More than jewelry, the neckpieces are sculptures - silver pieces (all of her jewelry is silver in color) that snake down a person's back or front, not with links but solid bars. They break and curve and conjoin with more shapes. Rather than behave themselves and sit flat like a traditional necklace, they misbehave with their surprising angles and even more surprising accessories - pieces of cholla cactus, cirrus cactus, perforated steel from building materials, and more.

Rameen took her first metal smithing class on a whim; she was a new mother and needed to get out of the house, to find a hobby, to explore creative options other than architecture. Pima Community College came to her rescue. "It was the first week in class and I was sitting there going 'This is it'," she says.

Rameen Ahmed Designs

One of Rameen's elaborate neckpieces, part of her Mobile Series, $3200. Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonucelli

She knew she loved the soldering and metal work, but "big sculptural things scared me, so I thought I'll just do tiny things." She had designed her and her husband's wedding rings, made for her by local jeweler Rick Pierini. And she was known as the lady who wore the wild jewelry, having for years favored ethnic and tribal pieces, arms full of bangles making their own maps of Thailand and the Indian sub-continent.

And so the metal working classes turned into jewelry classes, a stint studying metalsmith/jeweler Jude Clark ("I just said 'Can I come and watch you?'"), then a job with Krikawa in Tucson.

For Rameen, making jewelry has satisfied the frustrated artist she says was always latent in her, while still feeding her appetite for architecture. "Manipulating metal compared to architecture is instant gratification. You can get something made in two or three days, as opposed to two or three years. That's eye-opening."

She says she is intrigued by the discovery of three-dimensional design through physical movement and that her aesthetics have come full circle. Her jewelry is, if you like, a window into her childhood and her life since: tribal and modern, a crossing of international boundaries, the deserts and deltas of her homeland, the landscape and history of the southwest, and of course that National Assembly building she grew up staring at, worshiping even.

She describes her jewelry - sold through her website and represented by Obsidian Gallery - as "contemporary wearable art" that breaks away from the notion that jewelry should be static. Put simply, she says, it is turning solid metals into "liquid grace".

Rameen Ahmed Designs

Old mint tins and other vessels keep Rameen's jewelry pieces in order. Photo by Gillian Drummond

Today Rameen works out of her midtown Tucson home, where a long desk in the corner of the living room holds her materials and most of her tools (she makes extensive use of mint tins). The rest - the soldering tools - are kept on her back patio. The desk is that of an architect - neat, ordered, clean. Somehow she even managed to train her two children to leave the space alone, even during their inquisitive toddler years. In the middle of the living area hangs a length of fishing line with a loop. This serves as a place for her to hang jewelry in mid-air to test out that physical movement she is known for.

Photo by Gillian Drummond

Rameen on the patio of her midtown home. Apart from jewelry making, her other passion is gardening. Photo by Gillian Drummond

Rameen Ahmed Designs

Louis Kahn Revisited earrings, $500. Photo courtesy of Rameen Ahmed Designs

In Rameen's home library are books of buildings she has loved, among them Kahn's creation in Dhaka. One pair of earrings - hanging pearls with rectangles of silver, a circular hole cut out of them, forming a kind of 'armor' - is named Louis Kahn Revisited.

* You can find Rameen Ahmed's designs on her website and at Obsidian Gallery.

Killer queens

Chess is shedding its old man image for something much more rock ’n roll, and Tucson group 9 Queens has been a major player. By Gabby Ferreira.

Photo by Jeff Smithjeffsmithusa.com

This year's Chess Fest takes place April 26th at Hotel Congress. Photo by Jeff Smith

The atmosphere on this Friday night is lively. Children are playing, shouting and laughing, while their parents chat with each other and sometimes join in on the fun. It's a scene that could be found on a playground or a 4th of July get-together. But this is, in fact, a giant chess gathering.

Boys lug giant chess pieces across a large chessboard while others - children and adults - sit at tables, in a space at Bookmans Entertainment Exchange in Tucson.

9 Queens

Photo by Gabby Ferreira

The organization behind it?:  9 Queens, a Tucson non-profit that wants to not only empower children – especially girls – through chess, but to prove that this board game is anything but boring.

In a perfect chess game, nine is the highest number of queens you can have on a board – hence the name 9 Queens. Through events like the 4th Friday Family Fun Night at Bookmans, and its annual Chess Fest – held in the courtyard of Hotel Congress every April – 9 Queens seeks to do several things: make the game fun and accessible; encourage people to reach their ultimate potential; and help chess shed its old-man image.

Photo courtesy of G-Star

Chess champion Magnus Carlsen stars in G-STAR RAW's latest ad campaign. Photo courtesy of G-STAR

That image-shedding is already happening thanks to some pop culture boosts to the game. Ben Affleck, Will Smith, Jessica Simpson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Keanu Reeves have all been associated with the game. Chess superstar Magnus Carlsen, ranked world's top player at the age of just 22, has been dubbed the “Brad Pitt of chess”. He lends his name to  brands like the fashion line G-STAR RAW, and last year was named by Cosmopolitan magazine as one of the world’s sexiest men.

Here in Tucson, 9 Queens’ Chess Fest has attracted its own star players. This year the special guest at the event - held April 26th - is Rochelle Ballantyne, a famous female chess player who is part of the new chess generation.

Rochelle, who attends Stanford University, was featured in the documentary Brooklyn Castle, which is about  five members of a chess team at a below-poverty-level junior high school in Brooklyn that has won more national championships than any other team in the U.S., despite harsh budget cuts. Rochelle was taught by her grandmother,  and says that her family forced her into playing but she started to love it after she won her first competition. "[Winning] translated into me being one of very few women who are very good, and it made me work harder," she says.

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9 Queens co-founder Jennifer Shahade is also author of this book.

9 Queens was founded in 2008 by Jean Hoffman and Jennifer Shahade, the latter a Woman Grandmaster and the author of the books Play Like a Girl and Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport. And while Tucson is something of a chess capital – home to the highest number of chess masters in the United States after St. Louis, Missouri, says Jean – there were populations that were under-served and under-represented. Jennifer points out that, though half of the general population is female, not enough women are involved in the sport. In Chess Bitch she lifts the lid on the gender bias in the sport and tells of young women who are successfully challenging it.

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9 Queens wants to address the gender imbalance in chess. Photo byJeff Smith

As the mother of a boy and a girl, Tucsonan Vicki Lazaro had always offered the same after-school activities to her children. “Whether it was karate or ballet, we wanted our children to know they can do anything,” she says. “When we offered our daughter chess, she kept refusing. When I asked her why she looked at me and said ‘Because you don’t play.'” Vicki was determined to play chess with her daughter, despite her own reluctance. “I thought it would be boring and difficult and I didn’t think I’d have the patience for it,” she says.

Then mother and daughter attended a Chess Fest organized by 9 Queens, and Vicki was hooked. "I loved the concept of empowerment through chess. They were encouraging all genders and all races. Once I got involved, I put away all my other puzzles like Sudoku because this was just so much better," she says. "The self- confidence that my daughter got when she realized she could play what she determined to be a very difficult game was very cool to see. For myself, it's helped the way I think. I am better at keeping track of things now."

Jeff Smith\jeffsmithusa.com

Photo by Jeff Smith

Vicki is now interim treasurer of 9 Queens and relishing the opportunity to put a different spin on the phrase ‘playing like a girl’. "Being involved in the community and putting out something that's fun and positive and focused on smarts instead of frilly things, it's wonderful," says Vicki.

Though 9 Queens started out in 2008 as a female-oriented organization, the focus has shifted in the past year. "It really was limiting us -  especially in our local community. When you live in a community like Tucson, you want to make something like this available to as many people as possible," says Ann Price, interim president.

Photo by Jeff Smith\jeffsmithusa.com

Fun at Chess Fest. Photo by Jeff Smith

"9 Queens is for everybody, but we have a focus on underrepresented communities, like women and girls, refugees, Title I schools, and so on. We are not only focused on women, but we have strong women involved in the organization," adds Vicki.

9 Queens teaches an after-school program at Mexicayotl Academy, as well as providing teacher training. "The cost of a private chess coach is $45," says Vicki, "and we are free." Some of the youth members go on to excel at places like MIT. "Seeing more of our community do things like that is outstanding," says Ann.

They host non-competitive tournaments, as well as the Bookman's night and Chess Fest. The highlight of Chess Fest is a 'simultaneous exhibition'  in which special guest Rochelle Ballantyne will play twenty-five people at the same time.

Photo by Ryan Mihalyi

Hotel Congress is the venue for Chess Fest, where a celebrity player plays lots of games simultaneously. Photo by Ryan Mihalyi

"My hope is that 9 Queens has served as a bridge between the traditional chess world and the greater public," says Jean, who is now Executive Director of the United States Chess Federation and divides her time between Tucson and Tennessee. Jennifer lives in Philadelphia but spends time in New York. Checkmating and castleing apparently run in Jennifer's family; her father Mike Shahade is a FIDE (World Chess Federation) Master and her brother Greg is an International Master who makes instructional chess videos at chessvideos.tv.

The women behind 9 Queens have seen the changes for themselves. Says Jennifer, “you can definitely see the difference” in terms of the number of women involved in chess. Adds Ann Price: “Oftentimes girls would go to a tournament and there would maybe be one other girl in the room. I've had girls tell me that they don't play anymore because they didn't enjoy that. It's tough when your friends aren't playing."

Jeff Smithjeffsmithusa.com

This board game is anything but boring, says 9 Queens. Photo byJeff Smith 

Rochelle says the skills developed with chess – strategizing, communication, self confidence – are translated into all facets of life. “Nothing in life is too far-fetched. If you see something, you can do it - regardless of gender."

* Chess Fest this year will take place on April 26th at Hotel Congress.  Family fun nights are held on the 4th Friday of every month at the Bookmans on Speedway and Wilmot. Learn more about 9 Queens at their website, 9queens.org and on Facebook. You can also check out their Kickstarter campaign here.

 

3 chess-inspired styles we love

skyline chess

Photo courtesy of Skyline Chess

1. Instead of toppling the King with a pawn, why not use a terraced London house to topple Canary Wharf? The Skyline Chess set  by London designers Ian Flood and Chris Prosser replaces traditional pieces with recognizable London buildings. They're raising money for the set through Kickstarter, and plan to produce chess sets inspired by New York and Paris in the future.

chesstablemooicropped

Photo courtesy of Moooi

2. This chess end table by Moooi in The Netherlands can be used as a chessboard or just as a feisty accent piece. We think it's a great conversation starter. And we spotted something similar down at Tucson's Playground bar and lounge.

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Photo courtesy of Bruce Palmer Design Studio

3. This patio, designed to look like a chessboard, wins top marks from us for its simplicity. It's by Bruce Palmer Design Studio in Wilmington, Delaware.

 

 

 

 

Book fest

Photographer Laura Hennessy takes everyday objects and a macro camera lens and turns them into remarkable art. We joined the Tucson newcomer in her own festival of books, and toys... and, um, loofahs. By Gillian Drummond.

Book Bend_web

Photo by Laura Hennessy

Laura Hennessy is many things: a photographer, a graphic designer, a lover of art and architecture, a former flower buyer and a picker-apart of objects. Thanks to the direction her photography has taken her, you can also add thrift shopper and sculptor to that list.

Laura Hennessy photo

Laura Hennessy. Photo courtesy of Laura Hennessy

Laura has a fascination with everyday objects and the physics behind them: the thickness and the fanning of the pages of a book; the way flower petals bunch or splay; how the husk of an ear of corn can look like the swirling fabric of a dancer's dress. She plays with the objects - deconstructing them, spray-painting them, and using duct tape to sculpt them and hold them in certain positions  - before turning them into close-up photographs. There is barely any digital trickery involved  - a little color enhancement, if anything. She blows them up into still-life essays that are 30 inches tall.

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Photo by Laura Hennessy

"I strive to surprise, going to great lengths to make the ordinary extraordinary, whimsical, remarkable," she writes on her website. And the lengths are indeed great. Preparing her subjects for a shoot - whether it be painting them, or manipulating them - can take hours.

And sometimes the search itself is arduous. Once, after discovering color-coded AAA  manuals and loving how the colored page edges made for a great photo, she set out to find more. It turned into a goose chase in San Francisco. As she went from one AAA office to the other, she found that their policy had changed and the color-coded manuals were no longer used. They had reverted to plain white.

Growing up the daughter of an architect and the step-daughter of an interior designer, Laura found she had an intrinsic love for materials and detail. When she talks about her working adult life, she is self-deprecating. There was not much direction and there were many different jobs, she says. College didn't last long; she dropped out. But she always loved photography - initially slide film and, later, digital photography.

Book Vessel web

A book's pages are curled into themselves, resembling a plant or sea life. Photo by Laura Hennessy

After living in and around San Francisco, dabbling in photography and working at a number of "random" jobs, Laura got the career jolt she needed in the form of a move to a tiny town in Pennsylvania. Her then-boyfriend got work there, and Laura decided to join him. In between freelance jobs she devoted a lot of time to her photography, submitting her work to exhibitions, shows and magazines. Her photographs of books, in particular, caught the eye of magazine editors and gallery owners. Her images have appeared in the likes of Creative Quarterly, Communication Arts Magazine and Smithsonian Magazine, in galleries from Los Angeles to New York to Paris, and have earned her numerous awards.

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A plastic toy takes on a new identity. Photo by Laura Hennessy

It was a cheap romance novel that led to her book experiments. She was in a thrift store, looking for something inexpensive to take home and photograph, and she picked up a book with red-tipped pages. Back at home, the experimentation began. She took off the cover and started bending the spine and playing with the pages. She wet the pages to make them more malleable. Then she let it dry.

"A book has these natural design elements. You have all these lines that are already there," she says. The book fest continued. Laura found one of those AAA color-coded manuals. She bought an encyclopedia, its white pages speckled down the outside rim, and added her own spray paint. With others, she painstakingly curled each wet page into itself, and let them dry. The result? Something resembling a plant or sea life.

Laura spent a year in Pennsylvania before splitting with her boyfriend. She's not sad to have left the "redneck little town" where little happened and friends were sparse. But she's grateful that she emerged from the experience with a resumé that's as dazzling as her photos.

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An AAA manual's color-coded sections provide an eye-catching edge for photographs. Photo by Laura Hennessy

When it came time to leave, she realized she didn't want to return to the Bay Area. Living away for a time had allowed her to breathe, she says. She recalled spending one night in Tucson twelve years earlier, when she had stopped off on a road trip. She had stayed at Hotel Congress and, though downtown was not very happening, took a liking to the city and its "funkiness."

Four months ago she came back for two nights to check it out again, and shortly afterwards made Tucson home. And although she loves its affordability, its rich arts scene, and historic neighborhoods like Sam Hughes, she's less keen on its strip malls.

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A loofah is spray-painted green. Photo by Laura Hennessy

As a fine art photographer, however, nothing is too ordinary for Laura, and no object is off limits - from frozen seaweed, to a cork, to some lichen.

At a community college course in photography, she found herself not only "obsessed" with the macro lens of a camera, but also taking things apart. 'I was taking apart the flower and trying to find the parts that were odd, to find something that wasn't recognizable. The interest in abstraction was always there."

As a flower buyer, she held on to the nets that were used to protect the heads of gerbera daisies. And working as a graphic designer and photographer for Whole Foods for a time led to interesting still life studies of food.

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The nets that protect gerbera daisies became a still life for Laura. Photo by Laura Hennessy

With her book studies, the paper quality is important. Older paper tends to be softer and tears or balls up when it's wet. She prefers newer books, and larger ones too - encyclopedias and medical journals. Whether ironically or not, Laura is not a book lover or a big reader of the printed page. She prefers online browsing. All the same, she likes that she is re-purposing items that have their own history, that have been valued by people, and that - because of digital technology - are under threat. "There's some satisfaction in being able to use something like a book. I think people have a connection with a book because it has this history, and you're bringing to life something that lost so much value and is being tossed aside."

Cheap Red

The cheap romance novel that sparked Laura's series of book studies. Photo by Laura Hennessy

Why does she photograph the books, as opposed to making sculptures out of them? "I don't want to do anything crafty," she states flatly. And the magnification of the books, and other objects, is what sets her work apart, and drives her to keep going.  The objects are ordinary. The resulting art is far from it.

* To learn more about Laura Hennessy's work, visit laurahennessyphotography.com

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Photo by Laura Hennessy

Hard knock life

Designing a museum for children is tough; you've got to appeal, entertain and survive hard knocks. The newly revamped Children's Museum Tucson gave us an exclusive look at how they do it. By Gillian Drummond

Photo by Steph E Photography

Photo by Steph E Photography

There's a problem with the uvula, and it's causing quite a bit of head-scratching. Kids are trashing it. They stand on the tongue, grab the uvula at the back of the throat, and pull on it - a lot. Kevin Mills has gone through seven uvula upgrades in two and a half years. None of them last longer than a couple of months.

The giant mouth, and troublesome uvula, at Tucson Children's Museum. Photo by Gillian Drummond

The giant mouth, and troublesome uvula (back, at center), at Tucson Children's Museum. Photo by Gillian Drummond

The uvula in question hangs down the back of a giant model of a mouth, one of the exhibits at Children's Museum Tucson.  And while it's an excellent lesson in biology, it's also an all-too-tempting plaything. So the design team, led by director of exhibits Kevin, has adapted it, trying out tougher, more resilient materials each time. The current uvula - "state of the art", say the staff - features a concrete core, heavy duty rubber, a vinyl hose and some of the toughest construction adhesives and sealants available on the market.

tcmnose There are similar issues with a giant nose and accompanying fake green boogers. Exhibit designers tugged on them a few times to test their strength, but they were no match for the middle school boys who use them to swing from. Eventually they were wrapped with nylon mesh to give them extra durability.

"The half joke in the industry is that you've got consumer grade, commercial grade, military grade, and then you've got children's museum grade. They just bring this level of brutality," says Kevin of his young customers - valuable, all of them, but uniquely difficult to cater to.

The Museum closed for a month last summer for an extensive remodel, one that not only brought in some exciting new exhibits, but allowed Kevin to stretch his interior design talents to the limit. "Michael [Luria, executive director of the museum] really gives me carte blanche. He gives me a level of trust that I can pull off some grandiose ideas," he says.

And grandiose they were. The way he describes the museum's new entry way is "steam punk with a heavy dose of sky". He also calls it "tongue in cheek on the cheap."

Photo by Gillian Drummond

The 'steam punk' foyer. Photo by Gillian Drummond

The front desk is made to look as if it's floating through the sky; walls and the ceiling are painted with clouds, a hot air balloon tops a column, and there is a piece that's built to resemble an airship. Look closely (which is difficult, as many of these pieces are high up) and you see the 'cheap' element to Kevin's design. The base of the balloon is an upturned lampshade attached to a planter from Home Depot. An urn and a copper pail - also bought at DIY stores - form a piece of the airship, and the faux flares are made out of tubes. The lighting on the walls is made from sconces from Home Depot that have been retooled and added to. A clock on the wall was picked up at discount chain Stein Mart. Around the back of the front desk there are heavy duty decals stuck on to the piece, created from an image that resembles lots of old-fashioned filing drawers.

Decals on the front desk give the impression of old-fashioned filing drawers. Photo by Steph E Photography

Decals on the front desk give the impression of old-fashioned filing drawers. Photo by Steph E Photography

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One of Kevin Mills' own custom light creations. His work has appeared in boutique furniture stores and galleries nationwide. Photo courtesy of Kevin Mills

Kevin, who has a degree in industrial design, has worked on private jets for Bombardier, taught at the University of Arizona's College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture, and worked on exhibits at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. He has also designed furniture and light fixtures, and exhibited his work at art galleries like Conrad Wilde and Obsidian in Tucson and, outside of Tucson, in New York, Chicago, Florida, LA, and San Francisco.

"Most of my work has to be brightly colored and antiseptic plastic," says Kevin of his children's museum work. He says that when it came to designing the steam punk foyer, he relished playing with tones and themes that went in another direction. "I was jumping out of bed every morning," he laughs.

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Kevin Mills. Photo by Daniela Siqueiros

Children's museums are all about interactivity, and Tucson's is no different. So in order to cope with kiddos' wear and tear, the right - durable - materials need to be used. There are certain no-nos. Painted wood doesn't last, and nor does it agree with young gums and teeth. Particle board is not their friend. "They've lost precious dollars with particle board," says Kevin. He prefers the more hard-wearing MDF, which can also be easily painted to look vibrant.

Nicomia, the Mesa-based company that worked with TCM on some of its exhibits, used laminates, birch plywood and butcher block. Paints are low in VOC and finishes are waterborne as opposed to lacquer  - all the better for when little teeth chew them. "Children are extremely tough little customers. As Kevin has observed, there's something of a mob mentality that goes on," says Tane Clark, one of the owners of Nicomia, which has also worked on the Phoenix Children's Museum.

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A tubular air flow system, one of the new exhibits at the Tucson Children's Museum. Photo by Steph E Photography

The Children's Museum Tucson's long-standing dinosaur exhibit has gone, and in its place is Investigation Station, funded by a grant from the Angel Charity for Children. Interactive machines based on science, technology, engineering and math include 'blowers' that keep balls in the air, a tubular airflow system, and a machine that demonstrates sound waves. Some of them cost up to $50,000 each.

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Tucson Children's Museum's "tough little customers" applying water to slate. Photo by Steph E Photography

Next door, a new area called Wee World has art and craft activities, including the stunningly simple (but effective) exhibit of pieces of slate that children can wet with water. A play area for tots has proved popular for adults too, says Daniela Siqueiros, marketing and community relations manager. "It creates a spot for families to do something together. We see parents putting away their phones. That's a huge accomplishment and a very happy result," she says.

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When it comes to children's museums, the more robust the material the better. Photo by Gillian Drummond

Kevin and Daniela spend time talking to the customers - kids and their parents - and observing how they are interacting with exhibits. She does a few walk-throughs a day. "One, it lets me breathe," she says, "and it's nice to talk to them and see what they're liking about the space."

The Museum has invested a little over $1 million in its exhibits over the last three years. Membership has grown by 15% in the last year, to 2100 members, and attendance has grown by 82% in the last five years, says Daniela.

Although the results are worth it, children's museums can be taxing for designers and technicians used to more straightforward designs and repairs, and normal wear and tear. Kevin tells of the day he met his assistant, Dave Kitchel, a man ten years his senior and a repair and handyman veteran. He had to be persuaded to take the job. When he visited for an interview, "he left trembling saying 'I don't think I can do this'", says Kevin.

But along with the hard knocks come genuine rewards, says Kevin. "I've worked in a number of fields but this is by far the most rewarding and fulfilling. [There's] the crazy use of unlikely materials. I'm one part sculptor as much as I am industrial designer, and there's just so much opportunity for me to play and be creative."

* Find the Children's Museum Tucson at 200 S 6th Ave, Tucson. Tel: 520 792-9985.

Hear our radio feature about Children's Museum Tucson by clicking this link and hitting the 'listen' button.

Born in the USA and growing fast: children's museum facts

* The world's first children's museum opened in Brooklyn almost 115 years ago.

* Today, around 400 children's museums worldwide reach more than 30 million children and families annually.

* Children's museums exist in 25 countries and every continent but Antarctica. In 1975 there were fewer than 40 children's museums in the United States.

* 80 new children's museums opened between 1976 and 1990. Now there are approximately 400 located around the world and about 60 children's museums in the planning phase. In a typical year, five new children's museums open.

Source: Association of Children's Museums

 

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The Children's Museum Tucson occupies the historic Carnegie Library building in downtown Tucson. Photo by Gillian Drummond

Back in the saddle

Plans are afoot to turn Rex Ranch from dude ranch to artists' colony. But as the team behind the resurrection gets an extension on its deadline, the challenge is not just financial, it's architectural. By Lee Allen.

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Rex Ranch in Amado, Arizona. Photo by Sarah Lee

Sometimes it takes history to make history, which is what the Save Rex Ranch group is trying to accomplish. A diverse group of volunteers is working to buy and restore the historic Southern Arizona landmark near Tubac in the hopes of turning the former dude ranch into a cultural arts center where artists, designers, scientists, and others of creative ilk could mix and mingle in a meeting of the minds.

The project to morph the structures (built in the 1880s) into artistic residences requires passion in addition to the usual - time, labor, and money. Especially money. Up for sale with no takers over the past couple of years, the original asking price of $2 million was dropped to $735,000. And that’s when Joseph Beyer stepped in.

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Joseph Beyer, the man who stepped in to save Rex Ranch. Photo by Sarah Lee

"There aren't many places like this left any more and this is exactly the kind of thing I always dreamed could happen," says Joseph, who had stayed ten years ago and made frequent trips to Southern Arizona.  "Places like this were built to accommodate people --- and that's what we want to do. We are going to find a way to make this happen,” says the director of digital initiatives for Sundance Institute.

The pressure is on; as of the first week of January only $40,850 of the $735,000 had been raised, mainly through crowd funding. Last month, the bank extended the deadline from December to February 14th.

30 Rock's Jack McBrayer is one of the project advisers.

30 Rock's Jack McBrayer is one of the project advisers. Photo by Leoine

Many of Beyer’s project collaborators and advisers include leaders of the arts in Arizona and California who know the value of having a place for creative thinkers and artists to do their thing. Among the collaborators are: singer Lee Anne Savage; Peggy Johnson, executive director of Tucson's Loft Cinema; upworthy founding curator Adam Mordecai; and 30 Rock actor Jack McBrayer.

Joseph says he will work tirelessly to repurpose the historic property, and he has described its potential as "epic". “The property has a patina of being someplace special, and it’s calling for something like this to happen --- to take a historic property of this size and complexity and turn it into something dynamic and useful,” he says.

Like a desert wildfire in the dry season, this idea has taken off. The advisory board is growing with the addition of folks such as Tucson architect Corky Poster, restoration expert David Yubeta, Native American actor Jon Proudstar, and others with interest in the arts and sciences. “We have over a hundred volunteers who want to be a part of making history. And I just learned that even though the project is still in concept stage, we’ve already received 75 applications for residency,” said Beyer.

For those who need specific numbers to define worth, the 50-acre property has 13 buildings, 22 rooms and suites, 8 casitas, and amenities like fountains, gardens, and a horse stable. “The individual buildings aren’t the special part, their interrelationship is,” says Joseph.

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Rex Ranch in its heyday. Photo courtesy of Save Rex Ranch

“Some of the rooms were operating as lodging just three years ago, so there’s a lot here to work with in what we’re calling an adaptive re-use architectural project. We have some great ideas to restore the casita designed by famed Tucson architect Josias Joesler, turning it into the centerpiece of the property as a whole. We want to stabilize and preserve the 100+-year-old adobe structures. It’s not our intent to change the look and feel of the property, we’d just like to bring it off the grid in a non-disruptive fashion, adding things like solar power and internet connectivity - invisible retrofits,” says Joseph.

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Photo by Sarah Lee

Los Angeles architect Anthony Laney, a volunteer adviser to the project, says some rooms are likely to be used for meetings, and short overnight stays. "I know that in the short term the dream is to simply bring back the beauty and quality of the place, to restore buildings to a level where they can be occupied and fully functional," he says.

Adds Joseph: “All ideas are on the table. That’s the great joy of this project - no restrictions, no directives - it’s fluid and dynamic and designed to be that way. There is a power and a spirit to this place that just needs some spit and polish to bring out its best.”

Architects and preservationists will play a big part in bringing back what once was. “This place is in reasonably good shape, so the preservation part, the stabilization/adaptation/reuse efforts - the physical improvements -will be the easy part,” says architectural preservationist Corky Poster of Poster Frost Mirto. “We are our own history, and the more history we can make productive, the more we can bring our heritage forward. Buildings and properties get preserved when someone figures out a contemporary use for historic sites and structures. Until someone figures out a viable rationale in today’s world, things won’t get rehabilitated (much like the 54,000-square-feet of old adobe buildings in Camp Naco that no one can figure out a use for),” he says.

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Photo by Sarah Lee

Corky, currently working on a well-thought-out restoration plan for Pima County’s 5,000-acre Canoa Ranch property, says properties need to rise to their potential. “With Rex Ranch, heritage and spirit are already built into it --- it’s already there, and that’s good because you can’t create that aura.”

Adobe restorer David Yubeta is an experienced mud man who says the hand-formed earthen brick buildings on the ranch “are acting like adobe should when no eyes are on it and it suffers from neglect. We all deteriorate with age, but there aren’t a lot of things I’d worry about yet. When plaster falls off, it just looks bad, but it can be replaced. I haven’t seen anything there that was so badly lost that it made my heart sad.”

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Photo by Sarah Lee

Fellow advisory board member Jon Proudstar is a Native American artist, filmmaker, and researcher who says: “Historically, Southern Arizona has been the hub of some incredible things, everything from Geronimo and Pancho Villa to Doc Holliday and Dillinger. Throughout our history, there have been seminal moments that didn’t just happen by accident. Tucson is full of brilliant human beings, mind-expanding individuals, and we’ve needed something like this to be their focal point.”

“There’s no intent to take a historic property and turn it into a modern architectural destination,” says Joseph Beyer. “We want this to be more than an art and design colony. We want creative people to come here with their creativity. There are so many things to consider, like adding an interactive sculpture exhibit to display ideas and works or a small plot to experiment with structural forms, materials, and ideas. We’re so damned excited about the variety of things that could happen here.”

Meantime, Joseph says he is hoping to negotiate a lower price.  "To date, over $40,000 has arrived in small donations.  An anonymous donor in Tucson gave us $15,000 to pay for all needed inspections and for the first time in over two years, the electricity is back on.  Although we need to raise enough to buy the place, we're going to win here with.  We wouldn't be doing this if we thought we'd fail," he says.

* For more information on the campaign to Save Rex Ranch - including how to volunteer and donate - visit the group's website or Facebook page.

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Photo by Sarah Lee